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Old 20th April 2011, 06:50 PM
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Warning: Facebook Buttons May Be Hazardous to Your Site's Health

If there's one thing that makes online sellers and marketplaces happy, it's an increase in traffic on their website - unless it's caused by a bug that has the potential to harm the website's ranking in Google.

That's what is happening on some websites - including online marketplace Etsy - thanks to a bug in Facebook's Like button. AuctionBytes first became aware of this issue when we saw a spike in our own page views in early April.

The Like Button Bug
As this page on Facebook explains, there are two methods for developers to put Like buttons on their websites: FBML (Facebook Markup Language) and Iframe. Although there had been reports last year about possible problems, FBML implementation of Facebook buttons had been relatively uneventful. But on or about April 5th of this year, reports of problems began to increase.

According to reports, The FBML version of the Like button causes blank pages to be created with a "fb_xd_fragment" query string to be added to the URL. There are several threads about this, including this thread in the Facebook developer's forum that was helpful in tracking down the problem on the AuctionBytes website:

"I can confirm the bug at several websites. It creates huge spikes in pageviews, several hundred per unique visit, and this happens overwhelmingly for Internet Explorer visitors. Google Analytics shows that the ?fb_xd_fragment was pretty much nonexistent on my site until April 4th when huge spikes happened again."

Our own access logs showed a spike in "fb_xd_fragment" queries when on a page accessed by certain versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, causing pages to refresh several times upon loading. During the period of April 5-11, AuctionBytes' access logs showed nearly 300% the average number of page views from the previous week, until we took down the button while we researched the issue.

According to some reports, the problem did more than wreak havoc with analytics programs - wrote one website administrator, "It causes the creation of duplicate pages on your site on all search engines that find the link on facebook."

Because Google penalizes websites with duplicate content in search results, this was cause for major concern.

Impact on Ecommerce Websites
We decided to write about the problem because of the potential impact on online sellers and marketplaces, and in researching the issue further, discovered that Etsy appeared to be having the same issue. On April 9th, jewelry seller NextChapter noticed the problem and informed Etsy on the discussion boards. An administrator responded today:

"In researching, our Tech Team verified there is an open bug on Facebook regarding this button. They have not updated the bug, nor us regarding this. In the meantime, our Tech Team is discussing and investigating options to provide a flicker-free experience for our IE 6-8 members, without damaging it for other browsers."

Etsy spokesperson Adam Brown confirmed that some people using Internet Explorer have been experiencing the problem on Etsy and lots of other sites, but said Etsy has not seen any negative effects from this, nor have they seen any negative impact in terms of visibility on Google. "This issue has only been a problem for the last few days. If this was a problem that was causing serious disturbances, we would have immediately disabled the feature upon discovery."

Last year, Facebook announced that they would be moving away from FBML in favor of iFrames. However, the "Like" button generator on Facebook Developers page still gives people a choice of iFrame code or the problematic FBML code. One can only surmise that there are still millions of active "Like" buttons generating the fb_xd_fragment.

We contacted Facebook via email to find out more about the problem and why it has not proactively announced the technical issue with its Like button. We're also waiting to hear back from Google to find out if it is aware of the issue, and how it affects an affected website's visibility.

Danny Sullivan of said it was unlikely to be an issue for Google. "I'm not sure that the spider would execute the FBML code, for one. If it did, Google might naturally consolidate the URLs. To be save, a site could use the canonical tag. In fact, I’d recommend any site do this. We have more about it here."

Other possible fixes for the problem are to take down like buttons or revert to the iFrame version

Facebook posted on its bug tracker this afternoon that a fix would be forthcoming: "We managed to track down the change that's causing the issue in IE7, and the fix is out in review right now. I expect the fix to be pushed either today or tomorrow. Thanks for your patience."

In the meantime, if you are a marketplace or online seller who uses Facebook like buttons on your website, keep an eye on this issue.
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